U.S. sues controversial Arizona sheriff for discrimination
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department sued a controversial Arizona sheriff on Thursday for civil rights violations, saying he and his office intentionally engaged in racial profiling and unlawful arrest of Latinos in violation of their constitutional rights.
Joe Arpaio, who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff," vowed to fight the suit, which he blamed on forces who do not like the way he enforces immigration laws.
The civil suit cited systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work, and a disregard for minority rights by Arpaio, the Republican sheriff of Maricopa County, and county officials.
The suit also said Arpaio's office routinely violates the First Amendment rights to free speech of political opponents by retaliating against them with unsubstantiated complaints and lawsuits, even having them unlawfully arrested.
The sheriff's detractors hailed the lawsuit as vindication for long-held grievances, while Arpaio and his lawyer were defiant.
"I will fight this to the bitter end," Arpaio told a news conference, his voice rising in indignation. "They are trying to take over my office, they are working with the activists in this county ... who don't like how I enforce the immigration laws.
"I will not surrender the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to the federal government ... We'll see them in court," he said.
His attorney, John Masterson, predicted the government's case would fall apart.
Arpaio faces re-election in November in the county that includes the Phoenix metropolitan area. He has become the face of hardline local efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, placing him on a collision course with the federal government.
The sheriff's combative style and defiance of federal threats have made him a hero to nativists and conservatives who advocate strict border enforcement. He is a pariah to liberals and immigrant rights advocates.
"The days of ... covering up the corruption in the sheriff's office, the abuse in the sheriff's office is over," said Steve Gallardo, a Democratic state senator who celebrated the suit. "It's time to shed some light ... on what's really going on."
The Justice Department sued Maricopa County, the sheriff's office and Arpaio in U.S. District Court in Arizona after trying unsuccessfully for 3-1/2 months to get Arpaio to comply with federal civil rights law.
"Leadership starts at the top and all of the alleged violations that are outlined in the complaint are the product of a culture of disregard for basic rights ... that starts at the top and pervades the organization," Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, told reporters.
The suit contends Maricopa County has created inadequately trained special units that are used to target Latinos for unlawful and unjustified arrests; has willfully denied Latino prisoners their civil rights in jail; and under Arpaio's direction has arrested political opponents for no valid reason.
"At its core, this is an abuse-of-power case," Perez said.
The lawsuit cited the use of a "volunteer posse," or group of untrained civilians, that carry out Arpaio's anti-Latino policies in a county of 4 million people that is 30 percent Latino.
Latino drivers in one part of the county are nine times more likely to be stopped than non-Latino drivers engaged in similar conduct, the suit said.
In one case, a sheriff's officer stopped a Latina - a U.S. citizen who was five months pregnant - as she pulled into her driveway and insisted that she sit on the hood of her car.
"When she refused, the officer grabbed her arms, pulled them behind her back, and slammed her, stomach first, into the vehicle three times," the suit said.
Arpaio's opponents hailed the lawsuit as a welcome first step in making the lawman accountable.
"This reign of terror that has been hanging over us may not come to an end, but sure enough, the sheriff will be held accountable for what he's done," attorney and Latino activist Daniel Ortega told a news conference.
Mary Rose Wilcox, county supervisor and longtime Hispanic activist, said she hoped the lawsuit would "send a chilling effect to all deputies: this will not be tolerated."
On the eve of the lawsuit, Arpaio released a 17-page document entitled "Integrity, Accountability, Community - The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office 2012," pledging to overhaul his office and take into account the views of his critics.
"I do not tolerate racist attitudes or behaviors. We at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office do not foster a 'culture of cruelty,'" Arpaio said in a statement.
But the pledge came too late to avoid the lawsuit, which was filed amid a broader battle between the state and the Obama administration over who has the right to implement immigration law.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing Arizona's defense of its crackdown on illegal immigrants, and the decision will be closely watched by Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, which followed Arizona in passing immigration crackdowns. A ruling is expected in June or July.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Daniel Trotta; editing by Anthony Boadle and Bill Trott)
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